Elegant, simple, timeless. Eero Saarinen made a promise to clean up “the slum of legs” in the common middle-class home in America. Shying away from his work with the Eames couple, who greatly favored four-leg configurations and star-shaped aluminum bases, he embarked on a journey to discover a new way of looking at dining room furniture.
This odyssey would lead him to the Tulip collection: a predominantly white-clad group of chairs and tables, the latter usually crowned by a marble top. This collection has become one of the most easily recognizable clusters of mid-century modern furniture in both America and Europe.
Today we want to see if we can dig up some of the biggest secrets behind this collection, and also to talk about what makes Eero Saarinen a genius, other than his masterful command of the space that we inhabit.
Saarinen’s Jefferson Memorial (reborn as the Gateway Arch National Park in 2018) recently received a commendation by modernist non-profit Docomomo. W also wrote an article about that if you’re interested.
The simplest designs often come from the deepest ideas
Saarinen’s Tulip Table purportedly comes from the concept of a droplet, extended, formed out of a highly viscous liquid. Imagine honey dripping into a flat surface, creating a brief, elongated shape that ends on a perfect circle upon contact. The second origin story for the Tulip table is, of course, the idea of a tulip itself.
The flower is not too famous in Finland, but it is indeed embedded on a good portion of Scandinavian culture. Tulip festivals still take place in the Netherlands, and their status as a highly marketable commodity reached its peak around the 16th century. Tulip flowers became so popular and valuable in Scandinavia that they ended up being used as currency.
The constant cultivation and export of the plant then led to a market frenzy that is now known as the “tulip mania.”
It’s easy to see why Saarinen would choose this symbol to make a statement in modern furniture. The beautiful tulip flower is also considered sacred in many Muslim communities, as the plant’s Arabic name is written with the same syllables that spell Allah.
Putting simple and functional design on a pedestal
The Pedestal Collection (which is the formal name for the Tulip group) entered the furniture world via Knoll in 1957. As I mentioned in a previous post, the shape of the chairs was a shared design with the Eames couple.
If you compare the original Tulip chairs with the early Eames fiberglass chairs from 1951, you can really see the resemblance. This kind of correlation is evident among other designs, such as the Eames Wire chair and every Harry Bertoia chair in existence. We have Florence Knoll to thank for these connections.
The Tulip flower was Saarinen’s solution to the “ugly, confusing, unrestful world” of furniture bases, but he didn’t get it right on the first try. He wanted to carve the chairs entirely from a single piece of fiberglass, but he soon learned that the resulting structure was not very long-lasting.
He would have to compromise and combine materials, something that apparently went against his quest for easily-attainable elegance.
You have to remember that these materials were not as ubiquitous then as they are today. For Saarinen, working with fiberglass was a fairly new and surprising experience, one that would require some help to get to a positive conclusion.
He worked closely with Don Petitt and a dedicated R&D team from Knoll to come up with the best way to actually produce the chairs. The company, logically, could not afford to dedicate extra man hours to a single, delicate piece —everything had to be part of the production cycle.
Why the Tulip chair and tables were a real tour de force in furniture design
Saarinen’s desire to eliminate that “slum of legs” is what brought him to the realization that nobody had made a chair with just one leg. It’s very hard to come across a similar design from that era, especially because of Saarinen’s distinctive vision and training in the art of sculpture.
In fact, Eero’s familiarity with sculpture was what would help him to finally accept (and work with) fiberglass and plastics.
The single base was also, in that sense, a logical conclusion to any chair: just like the human body itself is supported by a central element, why not apply this concept to our furniture? This design shift allowed the Pedestal Collection to attain two features that other modern furniture pieces did not have.
First, the space beneath the chairs allowed the person sitting on it to move more comfortably —their feet and legs free from collision with the chair’s base. Second, the table’s inherent flexibility (granted by the stem base and its curved shape), allowed for dining chairs to be added or removed from the equation in a much more comfortable manner.
We are of the opinion that Saarinen understood that straight lines are necessary to add order and balance to our lives through furniture and architecture, but he also understood that curved lines allow us to still have boundaries and balance while bending them far enough to have some more breathing room. In the end, it’s all about flexibility, comfort, and simplicity.
Again, the materials needed for these designs to work couldn’t just be plastics or fiberglass: something sturdier was needed to create the first true Tulip chairs and tables. Knoll started to manufacture them using an aluminum base that was later painted white and seamlessly added to the fiberglass seat.
The company still follows this build today, and they currently offer Tulip Arm Chairs, which come fully upholstered on the front or with a small seat; Tulip Armless chairs, which entered the market in 1957 and are more famous today than their predecessors; Tulip stools with swivel capability, and the Tulip table herself.
Remembering Eero Saarinen: sculptor, architect, clutter-slayer
When you look at pictures of the first items in the Pedestal collection, it’s hard to talk about color (because they’re mostly in black and white). However, it is understood the first actual models from the late 1950s had that booming red tone that Saarinen favored.
The first Womb chair iterations also shared this tone of red, and Saarinen even used while working on the TWA Flight Center’s brand identity. We would like to tell you exactly what kind of red it is and why it’s so important, but sadly, We haven’t found a lot of information on the matter.
After the Pedestal’s successful debut during the late 1950s, Saarinen designs became very coveted and recognized, much in the way we still recognize them today. Eero would not live long enough to enjoy these moments of furniture fame, as he passed away from a brain tumor in 1961.
He would also not live to see a future in which, as he desired, chairs could be made from one material alone —more specifically plastic.
Some people argue that he might not have enjoyed it anyway if he had the chance to see the countless plastic chairs that briefly serve their purpose in our lives (only to become agents of pollution and environmental catastrophe a few months or years later).
We really think this is the wrong approach, as we really can’t know how the man would’ve felt. The designer in Eero would totally be pleased, however.